Axel Straschnoy (born in 1978 in Buenos Aires) is a visual artist who lives and works in Helsinki. How he became an artist is a long and winding story, but his artistic career began at a film school in Buenos Aires. “I hated film school. And I didn’t hate film school because of film, I hated that film school.” He eventually finished his studies with a degree in art history – “I’m an art historian, that is my only paper,” Straschnoy laughs – but it was in film school where he was taught photography, which became his first stepping stone into the art world.
“I had this group of friends, we all took photographs, and at some point, we all started to wonder ‘is this photograph art?’, in this very naïve way, we had no connections to the art world at all.” In his quest to find out what is art, Straschnoy decided to take art classes. He soon learnt that the question was not whether something is art or not, but what would happen if it got shown. “And then I was suddenly thinking about doing exhibitions. Of course, my first show was in a café, terrible pictures,” he laughs.
He later got an opportunity to be a part of an exhibition in the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art in Brazil, and his career started to progress quite rapidly. “My first successful piece was a piece I did at the art fair in Buenos Aires in 2005.” For Torre (2005), Straschnoy collected trash from the art fair and placed it underneath his empty booth, raising it higher and higher every day. He won the arteBA-Petrobras Visual Art prize for it, and was consequently invited to do a show in the Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires.
For the exhibition, Straschnoy had planned a clay animation which would be shot from above in the exhibition space, so that people visiting the show would only see two men on platform, moving huge pieces of clay. The result – the animation – would thus be completed only after the exhibition ends, and the museum visitors would have no clue what they are actually looking at. The piece was eventually never made, but Estudio (2005), a smaller scale demo version of the idea, can be seen on Straschnoy’s website. “So, that was my first video,” he laughs.
Straschnoy later developed the concept in a piece he did at MAA-tila, a project space in Helsinki. He transformed the space into a huge, functional camera. “When you walk into the exhibition, you walk into the camera, which films the street, very slowly. Because you are inside the camera, you definitely disturb the camera’s functioning,” he explains. “When you open the door, light comes in, so you overexpose the negative, for example.” The footage the camera had filmed was turned into a 45-minute-long film screened in Helsinki, Buenos Aires and Copenhagen.
Towards the Spatial Cinema
Straschnoy’s interest in mechanical processes and technology is evident in many of his works, most recently in The Detective (2017), which he did for Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. The piece is a 360-degree virtual reality film about the ARS17 exhibition, allowing people to view the exhibition at home. But does it change the way people experience art?
“The Kiasma piece challenged the claim that virtual reality can reproduce reality,” Straschnoy says. “Does anyone need to go to Kiasma anymore if you can watch it at home? I don’t know, but I tried!” He also points out that his approach to technology is more critical than celebratory. “Whether I want it or not, new technological developments change how we experience the world, and I have the possibility to engage critically with these developments.”
Straschnoy is now working on two planetarium films. He has already utilized the format in Kilpisjärvellä (2012), which follows two men as they film northern lights in Lapland. “What is especially interesting to me about these planetarium films is that they really create an experience of being there,” he says.
In one of his new films, Straschnoy will take the viewer on a journey through the Northeast Passage. The film is partly about Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, a Finnish-Swedish explorer, who was the first person to complete the Passage, but it also focuses on the impact climate change has had on the Arctic.
“It’s crazy how in 140 years it came from Nordenskiöld being lucky to have made it out alive to ‘oh, let’s just go through the Arctic, it’s quicker than going south,’” Straschnoy notes. Not only is the Arctic a place most people will never experience, it is also an environment that is rapidly changing. “We might record images that won’t be there in five years, ten years.” Because he will get only one shot to film on the actual icebreaker in the Arctic, Straschnoy is going to test his filming equipment on a similar ship on the Baltic Sea. Filming on a loud, shaky ship brings along countless possible problems that must be solved beforehand.
Straschnoy’s other planetarium film takes place in a completely different world: it is a film about Italian illusionistic ceiling paintings. These paintings were used to create an illusion that the ceiling was not there. “It is interesting that, in a way, one could claim that the planetarium is the heir of this tradition, putting images on the ceiling so that it disappears,” he explains. “These rooms are a combination of painting and architecture. If I made a traditional film about these rooms, it would look very flat. But when I put it in a planetarium, the image surrounds you. I’m interested in how the combination of images and architecture can be represented in what I call spatial cinema.”
Strange Places, Less Explanations
Straschnoy is also collaborating with the Museum of Permian Antiquities in Russia on an exhibition about the Permian period which saw the extinction of most of Earth’s species. And, as if these large-scale, international projects were not enough, he is also writing his first feature film. The film follows an Argentinian man living in Helsinki who ends up singing tango, not because he wants to, but because he is from Argentina and he is almost forced into that role. These questions of national identity and belonging stem from Straschnoy’s own experiences.
“I’m in a strange place because I’m not an Argentinian artist anymore, but I’m not yet a Finnish artist either. So, I’m interested in exploring these borderline conditions. The film is very personal, in a way, but also about a situation that applies to a lot of people.” Working and living in Finland has also been artistically liberating for Straschnoy. “When I lived in Buenos Aires, I was constantly asked how is my work Argentinian, how do I represent my country, and when I’m here in Finland, nobody asks me how is my work Argentinian. Or Finnish. I can just do whatever I want. I don’t have to explain to people what I do, in terms of national identity.”
For more information and requests on Axel Straschnoy’s works, please contact AV-arkki’s programme coordinator Tytti Rantanen, firstname.lastname@example.org